What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?

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Here at PhilosophyOfReligion.org we are hosting an ongoing discussion by philosophers of religion about philosophy of religion. Our first blog series asked simply, “What is philosophy of religion?”; and our second series inquired, “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” Our third discussion focuses on the values and norms that define excellence in our field. What qualities or characteristics make a work in philosophy of religion worthy of being read, re-read, and criticized by fellow philosophers of religion? What, in fact, do we most admire in the work of others, and what ought we to most admire? Is rigorous argumentation the be-all and end-all of philosophy of religion, or are other values also important, such as multidisciplinarity, adequacy to the diversity of living religions, sensitivity to the existential dimension of religion, etc.?

The norms and values that define excellence in an inquiry not only specify the conditions for successful, progressive inquiry, but also implicitly define the goals of the inquiry itself. Is the purpose of philosophy of religion to explain religious phenomena, to criticize and/or defend religious ideas through argumentation, to gain wisdom about the good life through the study of human religions, or something else? Through an analysis of philosophers’ answers to our question about norms and values, we hope to surface some of the diverse views of the goal of philosophy of religion that are prevalent in the field. Once our analysis of the discussion is complete, we’ll present our findings on this website.

In the meantime, we invite you to read the blog entries and learn from experts who work in the field about the values and norms that define philosophy of religion.

David Rohr is a PhD candidate at Boston University’s Graduate Division of Religious Studies, and editor of PhilosophyOfReligion.org; Wesley J. Wildman is a philosopher of religion working at Boston University, and founder of PhilosophyOfReligion.org.

Carl Raschke on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Identifying Criteria of “Excellence” for a Philosophy of Religion of the Future

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – and now we near the close of the second decade of the twenty-first century – the question of what constitutes “excellence” in the philosophy of religion has always been intertwined with the fashions and protocols that rise and fall episodically in the enterprise of philosophy itself. Different approaches to what historically has been called “philosophy” routinely dictate cognate strategies for positioning how we do philosophy. At the same time, each of these approaches conditions what precisely we mean by “philosophy of religion.”

The term “philosophy of religion” itself is a product of the nineteenth century. Hegel in his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion was the first to give it currency. Prior to Hegel, and for much of the modern period itself, the question of the “religious” was inextricably intertwined with theological issues pertinent to philosophy itself. From Descartes’ efforts in the Meditations to justify the certitude of the cogito through an appeal to the goodness of God to Kant’s quest for a “religion within the limits of reason alone”, the sorts of matters that preoccupied pre-Hegelian philosophy might be better characterized as concerns for a philosophical theology rather than what later came to be known as “philosophy of religion”. Of course, we still continue to ply these concerns (for example, the classical arguments for the existence of God) under the rubric of contemporary philosophy of religion.

Hegel, however, was the first to posit “religion” in the generic sense as a distinctive topic area for philosophical reflection. As one can easily deduce from his Lectures, he would not have had the appropriate context to frame the problem of religion in the manner he accomplished apart from the beginnings of what later would be called the “history of religions” movement in German Romanticism in the early decades of the nineteenth century. As knowledge among Western scholars concerning the varieties, gradations, and intricacies of human religiosity increased exponentially later in the century, in no small part due to European colonial expansion and the rise of anthropology as a distinctive field of inquiry, the question of religion became less one of an epistemological evaluation of doctrine and belief and increasingly an effort to develop a methodology for making sense out of what religious adherents write and say as well as how they behave on a day-to-day basis. What figures such as Rudolf Otto, Willliam Brede Kristiansen, and Gerardus van der Leeuw characterized as a “phenomenology” of religion took its place alongside more traditional examinations of what were essentially theistic claims about God, the world, and the presumed supernatural order of things.

By the mid-twentieth century the hegemony and prestige of the natural sciences fostered a preoccupation with the degree to which religious convictions and concerns could be warranted by the fundamental canons of scientific rationality. The fashions in Anglo-American philosophy known as “logical positivism” and “linguistic analysis” (the latter deriving largely from the jottings and lectures of the Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein) turned the philosophy of religion for a season into an exercise in either repudiating religious language as “nonsensical” or trying to making it into something other than what it really was. The impact of French post-structuralism in the 1970s and 1980s, especially with the celebrity status of Jacques Derrida across the spectrum of the humanities, together with new translations of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy, precipitated the so-called “Continental turn” in philosophy of religion, which unsurprisingly gave birth to its own “theological turn” toward the end of the millennium.

The basic point is that trends in philosophy as a whole invariably set the standard for the criteria we employ to chart key agendas for the philosophy of religion specifically. Thus in order to bring the theme of this discussion – namely, what “norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion” – we have to ask ourselves what comparable measures or models shape what might be called “excellent philosophy” overall? In many respects philosophy itself, particularly in the Anglophone world, is more in doubt about itself than ever before. Growing social and political pressures and critiques from other disciplines and constituencies have rendered it impossible for philosophy to continue to couch its issues and go about attempting to resolve them in the somewhat self-congratulatory and insular manner that typified the field through much of the last century.

Burgeoning investigative terrains in cognitive and neuropsychology, for instance, have compelled researchers in the “philosophy of mind” – the discipline’s perennial and staple subspecialty – to ask entirely new questions than they have been accustomed to. Postcolonial literature, gender studies, ethnic studies, and such relatively fledgling subject interests as critical race theory have forced philosophy, even if extremely reluctantly, to reflect on, while coming to terms with, its own unacknowledged procedural biases, privileges, and epistemic blind spots in what are taken for granted as irreducible as well as inviolable norms of formalized “rationality”. The same apparatus of critical-theoretical assessment, which philosophy itself can no longer resist, applies straightaway to the philosophy of religion. The multifarious and increasingly interdisciplinary praxis that has come to be known as critical theory (far outpacing what the word signified a generation ago with its almost exclusive connotations of the output of the Frankfurt School) is perhaps the benchmark for much cutting-edge philosophy of religion today.

Figures such as Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, Cornel West, Giorgio Agamben, Achille Mbembe, or Judith Butler, who would never have been considered luminaries in either philosophy, or philosophy of religion, as late as the early 1990s, are now cited almost as frequently as Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, or Nietzsche. We are witnessing what might be termed the critical theoreticization of the philosophy of religion, and given the globalized and intercultural academic environment in which we are all now embedded, the swing in this direction is most likely to intensify, not abate.

Delineating “excellence” in the philosophy of religion, therefore, will mean that we have to broaden our range of vision concerning both the nature of “religion” itself and the kind of philosophy that pursues it. What Jacques Derrida identified in the early 1990s as the “return of religion” will not go away. But we are ever searching for more trenchant and complex meanings about religion as it persists in this post-secular age, and only the philosophy of religion, given its mastery of the critical machinery for wide-reaching scrutiny of diverse phenomena it developed two and a half millennia ago to be joined to the human sciences in their empirical sophistication, can really do the job.

We may be closer to what Nietzsche once called the “philosophy of the future” than we care to acknowledge. Similarly, we may also now be right on the cusp of a philosophy of religion of the future, which are just now scrambling to imagine.

Elizabeth Burns on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Elizabeth Burns is Reader in Philosophy of Religion and Programme Director, University of London. We invited her to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Those who teach philosophy of religion, at least in the United Kingdom, are usually required by their institutions to list the aims and learning outcomes for their courses or modules. While some might be tempted to regard this task as an exercise in pointless bureaucracy, perhaps we should, instead, see it as an important first step of any attempt to study philosophy of religion – whether this is an institutional programme or our own personal reading plan. It is, I would suggest, only when we have a clear idea of what we are trying to achieve and how we will know that we have achieved it that we will be in a position to judge what norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion.

So, what are we aiming to achieve when we study philosophy of religion? And in what respects will it make us different? Religion is an internationally important phenomenon; according to the Pew Research Center (2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/), in 2015, 6.2 billion of a world population of 7.3 billion had some kind of religious affiliation. Since, for many of these people, religion is a primary source of personal, social and, perhaps, political values, it is important that as many people as possible have an opportunity to consider whether religious beliefs are rational, or what a rational form of religious belief might look like, and the practical implications – both positive and negative – of religious beliefs. So, important aims of philosophy of religion might be:

i. To facilitate understanding and analysis of our own beliefs about religion and those of others;

ii. To promote beliefs about religion which are both rational and enable the flourishing of sentient beings.

The outcomes of our learning – although, admittedly, difficult to measure – might be assessed by examining the extent to which it leads to the changing or modification of beliefs which contribute to social cohesion and the transformation of individuals and communities.

So what methods should we use in order to achieve our aims and learning outcomes? Broadly speaking, analytic-style philosophy of religion prizes structure, clarity and precision, and proceeds towards its conclusions by means of analysis of step-wise arguments, while continental-style philosophy of religion focuses on ways in which we might change our thinking in order to transform the lives of individuals and communities, despite the inescapable difficulties of human existence.

At least some analytic philosophy of religion seems to lose sight of the aims and intended outcomes of writing and reading a text, however, and gets lost in the complexity and obscurity of arguments, sometimes translated into the symbols of symbolic logic which can be understood only by those with relevant training. The conclusions reached may seem trivial and/or uncertain; perhaps there is a form of the design argument which supports some kind of religious belief, for example, but even this would seem to fall far short of the level of significance and certainty on which someone might base their life and address the difficulties which they will inevitably encounter. Even the degree of precision afforded by the use of symbolic logic leads only to a conclusion which is dependent upon the nature of the values which are given to the symbols before the argument begins.

Those writing continental-style philosophy of religion often have a clearer focus on the practical relevance of their texts, but their relative lack of structure, clarity and precision, and sometimes the sheer length and complexity of their publications, make it hard for any but the most intellectually able and determined readers to identify the ‘message’ which they aim to convey. Sometimes, of course, part of the ‘message’ conveyed by the method is that the matters under discussion are complex and ambiguous and therefore difficult to communicate succinctly, but the reader’s task of discernment and evaluation remains challenging – perhaps too challenging for many who might otherwise have much to gain.

Complexity and obscurity in philosophical writing might sometimes be difficult to avoid in the initial stages of exploring a new philosophical position, as we struggle towards new solutions to complex problems, perhaps trying to say what has never before been said. But structured, clear and precise arguments of the kind valued by analytic-style philosophy of religion can help us to rule out positions which are unlikely to be true, and to maintain or adopt as the basis for our lives beliefs which are more likely to be true.

Part of the way in which we identify positions which should be rejected and choose those on which to base our lives is likely to involve an appeal to their practical implications, however. These are the reasons for belief which we commonly find in continental-style philosophy of religion and are often derived from the findings of other related disciplines such as ethics, psychology, sociology, politics, literature and other forms of art.

Perhaps our best hope of achieving the aims and learning outcomes of philosophy of religion, then, lies in embracing a hybrid-style philosophy of religion such as that proposed by John Cottingham in Philosophy of Religion: Towards a Humane Philosophy of Religion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), which preserves the positive aspects of analytic-style philosophy of religion but argues that our conclusions about religious belief should also be informed by ‘all the resources of human experience that are relevant to the shaping of a philosophically-rounded worldview’ (176).

In conclusion, then, if the primary aims of philosophy of religion are to enable us to consider the rationality of religious beliefs and their practical implications so that individuals and societies might be transformed for the better, excellent philosophy of religion needs to have the following features:

i. A discernible structure;

ii. Clarity, avoiding uncommon language and technical terms where possible;

iii. Precision;

iv. Brevity, avoiding any unnecessary repetition;

v. Supporting evidence from other relevant disciplines, where applicable.

Philosophy of religion texts which have these features are likely to be accessible not only to professors and some of their students, but also to a much broader human constituency, thereby substantially increasing the beneficial impact of their ideas upon the wellbeing of humankind and other sentient beings.

Graham Oppy on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Graham Oppy is Professor of Philosophy and Head of the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies (SOPHIS) at Monash University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The norms and values that determine whether something is excellent philosophy of religion depend upon what kind of thing is in question.

If we ask whether a particular text—blog post, book, book chapter, book review, encyclopedia entry, journal article, journal, magazine, magazine article, web content, etc.—is excellent philosophy of religion, then, among other considerations, we wish to know whether that text is challenging, clear, concise, informed, lively, original, rigorous, serious, significant, and so forth. It is plausible to suppose that there are many different kinds of trade-offs between relevant norms and values in excellent philosophy of religion texts.

If we ask whether a particular exchange is excellent philosophy of religion, then, among other considerations, we wish to know whether that exchange is balanced, civil, focussed, generous, informative, knowledgeable, profitable, respectful, well-tempered, and so forth. There are different kinds of written exchanges and different kinds of verbal exchanges; it is plausible to suppose that there is variation in the significance of particular norms and values for particular kinds of exchanges.

If we ask whether a particular person manifests excellence in philosophy of religion, then, among other considerations, we wish to know whether that person, in their engagements in philosophy of religion, manifests charity, education, expertise, honesty, imagination, integrity, intelligence, knowledge, reflection, sympathy, understanding, wit, and so forth. One particularly important aspect of personal excellence in philosophy of religion is imaginative sympathy: exercise of the capacity to see things from the standpoints of those with whom you are in deep disagreement.

If we ask whether a particular collective—e.g. editorial team, learned society, publishing press, university department—manifests excellence in philosophy of religion, then, among other considerations, we wish to know whether that collective is accountable, connected, improving, independent, open, transparent, well-governed, well-managed, and so forth. Of course, when we assess collectives, we assess their members, the exchanges in which they engage, the texts that they produce, and so forth. But, on top of all of this, there are norms and values that apply to collectives qua collectives.

If we ask whether, at a particular point in time, the discipline is manifesting excellence in philosophy of religion, then, among other considerations, we wish to know whether the discipline is comprehensive, developing, diverse, inclusive, tolerant, well-focussed, and so forth. Thinking about the manifestation of excellence at the level of the discipline directs attention to particularly thorny matters. Is the discipline sufficiently open to members of non-dominant groups? Is the discipline riven by factional strife? Is the discipline sufficiently informed by work in neighbouring disciplines: biology, cultural studies, economics, history, mathematics, neuroscience, physics, political science, psychology, religious studies, sociology, and so on? Does the discipline do justice to the full range of world religions? Has the discipline largely been captured by ideologues pushing particular barrows? Etc.

An obvious question prompted by the discussion to this point is whether the norms and values that determine whether something is excellent philosophy of religion are unique to philosophy of religion. It is evident to inspection that almost everything that I have said so far about texts, exchanges, people, collectives, and the discipline could also be said about other philosophical disciplines—e.g. applied ethics and political philosophy—and about other disciplines more broadly—e.g. religious studies and cultural studies. Sure, not all of these disciplines need to worry about doing justice to the full range of world religions; but all of them do need to worry about doing justice to the full range of relevant subject matters. Philosophy of religion is philosophy of religion; so, of course, it is important that philosophy of religion does justice to the full range of world religions. But, in equal measure, political philosophy is political philosophy: it is important that political philosophy does justice to the full range of political persuasions and institutions. And, in no less equal measure, religious studies is religious studies: it is important that religious studies does justice to the full range of world religions.

I am inclined to think that the norms and values that determine whether something is excellent philosophy of religion are entailed by the norms and values that determine, for any X, whether something is excellent philosophy of X. Moreover, I am inclined to think that the norms and values that determine, for any X, whether something is excellent philosophy of X are entailed by the norms and values that determine whether something is excellent philosophy. Perhaps we should consider going further: perhaps the norms and values that determine whether something is excellent philosophy are entailed by the norms and values that determine, for any discipline X, whether something is excellent X. But I am hesitant. Given the way that philosophy is related to other disciplines—and, in particular, given that philosophy is unique in nowhere having universal expert agreement on claims and methods—I think that we should not be too surprised to find that there are some norms and values unique to philosophy that enter into the determination whether something is excellent philosophy. Of course, what I have just said is compatible with the claim that almost all of the norms and values that determine whether something is excellent philosophy are entailed by the norms and values that determine, for any discipline X, whether something is excellent X. It is plausible that, if the norms and values that determine whether something is excellent philosophy are not all entailed by the norms and values that determine, for other disciplines, what makes for excellence in those disciplines, the shortfall is not very extensive.

Although the norms and values that determine whether something is excellent philosophy of religion depend upon what kind of thing is in question, we can appeal to all of those norms and values when we make judgments about the current standing of philosophy of religion. For, of course, a judgment about the current standing of philosophy of religion will be an aggregative judgment that assesses—perhaps among other things—the current overall state of texts, exchanges, people, collectives, and matters specific to the wider discipline.

Diane Proudfoot on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Diane Proudfoot is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. We invited her to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

When I told a visiting philosopher that I was writing a book in the philosophy of religion, he said: ‘Why? Aren’t there enough books in the philosophy of religion already?’. This response was not the most delicate (I was treating him to a good lunch), but it was to the point. After all, will anyone really criticize the logical structure of teleological arguments more effectively than Hume? Write about religious experience more provocatively than Freud? Or argue about the possible benefits of religion more ingeniously than Al-Ghazālī? And, if that’s as unlikely as it seems, what justifies taking up yet more server space?

However, it would be absurd to say that, since Hume’s Dialogues are excellent philosophy of religion (or the South Island of New Zealand a spectacular place to visit), further work (or travel) is superfluous. Philosophy of religion (hereafter PR) continually changes—or should change—as a result of both intra- and extra-philosophical factors. Beginning with the former, excellent PR is up-to-date. PR is a composite of philosophical questions from a range of fields—metaphysics, logic, ethics, epistemology, political philosophy—and each of these generates new theories, ideas, and arguments. These in turn must be integrated (where relevant) into PR. In addition, PR is sensitive: it is aware that its subject is not solely the ‘Big 5’ religions—even with the addition of reinterpretations such as feminist or non-realist Christianity and secular Buddhism—but also the vast range of religions worldwide.

Next, influences from outside philosophy. Here science and naturalism dominate: just as philosophy of mind has recognized the importance of the cognitive sciences, so excellent PR accommodates the results of neuroimaging and experimental psychology. Also, the shift among numerous people in the West from a religious to a ‘spiritual’ identification has the result that certain of PR’s traditional subjects—for example, the deity targeted by the problem of evil—may become peripheral. In contrast, the greater public awareness of different faiths has the result that the epistemological and ethical problems of religious diversity and freedom are inescapable topics in 21st century PR.

Certainly Hume anticipated the modern view that the origin and persistence of religion is explained by anthropomorphism and death anxiety. Yet he was constrained by the science and philosophy of his time. He began through a glass darkly to tackle assertions—including that of a divine designer—that today are articulated in markedly different ways. Even Hume’s 20th century heirs, such as John Mackie, were writing before the explosion in the cognitive science of religion. And so, as philosophy and the world change, more monographs, articles, and lecture courses on PR—as well as philosophyofreligion.org blogs—are necessary.

Of course, my colleague who challenged the need for further books on PR may simply suppose that all (fundamental) religious beliefs are false—and conclude that there is little point in philosophical analysis of the content of such beliefs. Instead, what is required is sociological study of believers. Or that religion is actually a matter more of behaviour than belief—and so again is the domain of the social scientist. This view need not eliminate courses or textbooks on PR, or even books for the general public, since it must be made clear why religious beliefs are false—but it seems to pull the rug out from any other PR project.

This, though, is to overlook the fact that naturalized PR itself leads to new philosophical questions. Can the believer consistently accept both an immaterialist metaphysics of ‘ultimate reality’ and naturalistic explanations of the origin and persistence of religion? This is a new question, prompting new arguments—for example, that a supernatural deity is the likely source of any evolved disposition to religious belief or experience.

Moreover, just as philosophy and the world evolve, so religions and the religious change. Religious writings are customized in order to be consistent with modern science. For example, Al-Ghazālī’s claim that the religious person is typically happier than the non-religious is reinvented using 21st century statistical techniques and empirical studies. Doctrines are reinterpreted in order to evade philosophical problems that (my sceptical colleague believes) defeat ‘traditional’ religious claims.

Even the metaphysics of religion is reinvented. For example, techno-prophets claim that imminent progress in computer engineering and neuroscience will make good on religion’s promise of survival after death. According to (what I call) techno-supernaturalism, souls are in essence patterns of information, in principle replicable and upgradeable; after death I am simply a digital ghost awaiting reanimation. This is a daring hypothesis, but no more so than those of supernaturalist religions—and it is more attractive to digital natives than the idea of a ‘spirit body’ or revived corpse. This is natural theology for the computer age, explicitly branded as ‘digital theology’.

In sum, excellent philosophy of religion is, among other things, responsive to its time. And now is an exciting time.

Charles Taliaferro on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Charles Taliaferro is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at St. Olaf College. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

I suggest that philosophical inquiry is similar to, but different from a great deal of scientific inquiry, especially when the latter involves repeatable experimentation, empirical data, predicting physical events. Philosophy can certainly rely on experience (as in phenomenology) and on the natural and social sciences themselves, but, in general, philosophical accounts of values, human practices (from religious to secular), of knowledge-claims, and so on, can involve some formal norms (coherence, logical consistency) and a wide variety of other considerations (from conceptual and/or linguistic analysis to the appeal to intuition). In terms of methodology, I have defended in various places what is called phenomenological realism-in the tradition of Max Scheler and von Hildebrand. This is decidedly different from some in philosophy of mind and philosophy of religion who assume as a methodological framework some form of naturalism. In the book Naturalism co-authored with Stewart Goetz, and in other books such as A Brief History of the Soul, we have argued that both strict and broad forms of naturalism are problematic.

In taking a closer look at the place where science and philosophy diverge, I suggest it is rare for an interesting philosophical position to be tested by empirical experiments. How would one test (for example) externalist vs internalist accounts of justification in epistemology or moral realism or nominalism vs Platonism on abstract objects or even idealism (whether with Berkeley or Hegel)? Well, I suppose the later might be a counter-example as Hegel thought he could determine philosophically the number of planets. But in most arguments in philosophy of religion-from theodicies to the evidential problem of evil versus skeptical theism articulated by William Rowe and Paul Draper, perfect being theology, Buddhist arguments against a substantive account of the self, whether God might be timeless, etc.-it is hard to see how matters might be resolved empirically.

Still, insofar as philosophy of religion is understood to be about religion, it does seem as though scientific inquiry will be needed in order to understand what are claimed by various religious communities, etc; this is, though necessary, not sufficient for philosophical inquiry.

One might also note that the field of philosophy of religion contains ongoing projects involving the appeal to evidence and testing the explanatory power of key positions (commonly this concerns comparing the merits of theism and some form of naturalism). But philosophy of religion also includes philosophers who repudiate appeals to explanatory power and the metaphysics of theism. This has been done by both theists (like John Cottingham and Paul Moser) and non-theists (such as the late D.Z. Phillips) as well as by some who repudiate the theism versus atheism debate (Howard Wettstein, for example, does not self-identify as an atheist or theist). In a sense philosophy of religion may be the most diverse sub-field of philosophy for it draws on all the other sub-fields in the discipline (metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, logic, political philosophy, philosophy of science, even aesthetics, and so on). Insofar as these sub-fields have diversity (say, instrumentalism versus realism in philosophy of science), that diversity often shows up in philosophy of religion.

Timothy Knepper on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Timothy Knepper is professor of philosophy and chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Drake University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In the past, I have written about philosophy of religion as a means of taking seriously religion, the world, and one’s self. Here, I will treat these ends of philosophy of religion as values for philosophy of religion. By no means do these three desiderata constitute an exhaustive list of values or norms for philosophy of religion. (In this respect, I usually defend the full gamut.) Rather, I emphasize these ends here as features or values of philosophy of religion that are underrepresented, if not neglected, in contemporary philosophy of religion.

First, philosophy of religion takes religion seriously. For me, this means fidelity to the phenomena of religion or, in epistemological terms, empirical adequacy. Simply put, if the philosophy of religion is to be philosophy of religion, then it needs to philosophize about a diversity of religious reasons and ideas, as voiced by a diversity of cultures, classes, creeds, and genders. This means paying attention to religious diversity in space and time, as well as paying attention to voices that are typically excluded from the discourses of philosophy of religion. Given the power dynamics of contemporary philosophy of religion, it involves resistance to the hegemony of Christocentric theism and theistic philosophy of religion. Contra a prevalent bias in the academic study of religion, it also requires defending the investigation of religious realities, truths, and values as one important facet of the study of religion more broadly. This might seem to be in contrast to what politically-correct societies tell us: respect religious difference by avoiding questions of truth and value. But such avoidance in fact disrespects religious traditions and communities, since they often, if not always, make claims about what is true and valuable.

Philosophy of religion also takes seriously the world. By “the world,” I primarily have in mind human others with whom we come into contact, whether immediately or not. How does philosophy of religion take seriously such others? For starters, it recognizes that others take themselves seriously, at least some of the time, asking questions of meaning, truth, and value about themselves and their world. At the same time, though, it readily admits that these others often answer such questions differently. So, if we are going to live in a flourishing society or world with these others, let alone have significant interactions with them, then we need to know at least a little something about what they take as ultimately meaningful, truthful, and valuable. We might even need to know how to discuss and debate matters that are ultimately meaningful, truthful, and valuable in ways that are respectful and peaceful. This is all the more true for the community of scholars that practices philosophy of religion as such. It is critical that this community of inquiry not only be constituted by a robust diversity of biases and biographies (etc.) but also engage this diversity in a manner that helps check biases, especially of the powerful, and enrich inquiry, especially with regard to equity and inclusion. Perhaps, then, we can call this value or norm or end “dialogical diversity.”

Finally, philosophy of religion takes seriously oneself. Undergirding this claim, for starters, is my belief that humans generally want to know what is meaningful, true, and valuable. Not always, of course. But sometimes, at least. Philosophy of religion is one very important way of doing this, since philosophy of religion asks about what is meaningful, true, and valuable with regard to ultimate beings, truths, and goods, especially where other-worldly beings or post-mortem ends are concerned. For me, this means that at the end of the day philosophy of religion is personal. What I mean by this is that philosophy of religion is a means of helping oneself think through and reason toward what is personally meaningful, true, and valuable with regard to ultimate beings, truths, and goods. Philosophy of religion is notoriously “subjective,” at least in the sense that it is darn difficult to produce “feedback” to confirm or confute hypotheses about religious reality, truth, and goodness. Thus, there is seldom inter-subjective agreement about such hypotheses. Nevertheless, philosophy of religion remains an important, if not necessary, means of taking one’s own self seriously by investigating these matters for oneself.

Ilaria L. E. Ramelli on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Ilaria L.E. Ramelli is Full Professor of Theology and K.Britt endowed Chair (Graduate School of Theology, SHMS, “Angelicum” University) and elected Senior Research Fellow at Durham University, at the University of Oxford (Fowler Hamilton fellowship) and at Erfurt University, Max Weber Center, within a Research Award / “Forschungspreis” from the Humboldt Foundation. We invited her to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Excellent Philosophy of Religion [PoR] could be defined by values that are interrelated with the virtues of Philosophy and virtues of Religion together. These virtues are ἀρεταί in their Greek etymological sense: virtues as excellences, and therefore as norms and models. Overall, values that define excellent Philosophy are truth (or better the quest thereof) and logical/rational rigour. Values that define excellent Religion are the pursuit of the Good and the moral and spiritual elevation of humanity.

Ancient philosophy, which included theology as its highest peak and offers the first examples of PoR, often described its own goal as the “assimilation to God,” God being the core of Religion but also the highest object of Philosophy (see below). The exercise of philosophy in antiquity aimed neither at academic career nor at political power nor at acquisition of money or similar goals, but at the philosopher’s assimilation to God-God being the supreme Good, and theology being the pinnacle of philosophy. The life of the philosopher had to conform to this noble telos or aim. Therefore, the ideal was no corruption, no injustice, no iniquity, no envy, no calumny, no meanness, nor any other pathos (passion or bad emotion) or evil deed for every day of the philosopher’s life-nothing unworthy of God, who is the model for humans-but rather all virtues, which are exemplified primarily in God.

Excellent PoR is rational investigation applied to things divine and the relation between the Divine and the world, especially the relation between the divine and humanity-as already Origen thought of it, PoR is essentially Philosophical Theology. I agree, and Origen would agree, that philosophy matters a great deal in the study of religion, and religion-theology in philosophy.1 Ancient epoptics, i.e. theology, was the highest part of philosophy for all Platonists (and other philosophers), ‘pagan’ and Christian alike.2 Vis-à-vis a criticism of PoR as offering little to religious studies and as being too close to Philosophical Theology and a kind of crypto-theology,3 I would share the general drift of Bradley Onishi, who argues that PoR, and philosophy in general, offers much to religious studies-although he concentrates on Continental PoR, while the discourse could be broadened to all of PoR, from the disciplinary viewpoint.4

Reflecting on the values and norms of PoR must take into account that PoR can investigate into protology, metaphysics, cataphatic and apophatic theology and what I call “the dialectics of apophatic theology,” mystical theology, Christology and its philosophical interpretations (including philosophical interpretations of dogmas and Logos Christology), theories of creation, theories of time and eternity, ethics and its metaphysical foundations, the problem of evil and innocent suffering, free will, responsibility, ethical intellectualism, hamartiology, philosophical anthropology, the mind-body relation, philosophical asceticism, soteriology, death and the afterlife, inter-religious relations (e.g. Jewish-Christian and others), Trinitarian theology in Christianity, Binitarian theologies in Judaism and Christianity, monotheisms, henotheisms, polytheisms, and pantheisms (including forms of Christian pantheism), faith and knowledge, religion and science, universalism, the philosophical analysis of religious doctrines, and religions and their philosophical interpretations.

In this connection, among the most important values for PoR are Truth, Justice, Good, the akolouthia or consequentiality of all virtues; and, methodologically, logical rigour, fruitfulness for further inquiry, and a “zetetic” or heuristic attitude in research concerning the Divinity, with the awareness of the limits of this investigation-which historically gave rise to what I call “the dialectics of apophaticism”.5 These values are all related to “assimilation to God” as the main telos: God is Truth, Justice, the supreme Good, the paradigm of all virtues, and has given reason, the logos, to all rational creatures in order to choose virtues and reject evil consciously and voluntarily (this, within a broad framework of ethical intellectualism).

Origen of Alexandria, one of the best ancient philosophers of religion and a model of “zetetic” inquiry, exemplifies the thirst for Truth and Justice.6 These are among the main epinoiai or conceptualizations of Christ, God’s Son, along with Logos and Wisdom. According to Origen, the norm of PoR is God’s Logos, who is all virtues, Justice, Mercy, Wisdom, Righteousness, etc. (essentially, Plato’s Value Forms). Christ-Logos collects all values and norms. Hence the ideal of assimilation to Christ, who is God. For Origen, PoR and Philosophical Theology, i.e. the rational investigation of things divine, helps people to attain the highest goal of human life (which was also Plato’s definition of the telos of human life): assimilation to God. Assimilation, or likeness, to God, ὁμοίωσις Θεῷ, was both a Biblical (Gen 1:26) and a Platonic ideal (Theaet. 176AC), received by Aristotle, Antiochus of Ascalon, Philo, and “Middle Platonists” such as Eudorus, Albinus, Alcinous, and the anonymous Commentary on the Theaetetus (7.18).7

For Origen this convergence was-along with many others-a further proof that Plato was inspired either by Scripture or by the same Logos who inspired, and is “incarnate” in, Scripture. Indeed, in Princ. 3.6.1 Origen states that the ideal of assimilation to God expressed by Plato in Theaet. 176B is the same as that mentioned in Gen 1:26. Tübingen Theosophy 1.40, too, recognised that not only “pagans” (i.e. Plato and his followers) but also Moses embraced this ideal. The basis for “assimilation to God,” in Origen’s view, is the “affinity” between human nous and God-nous (Princ. 1.1.7. This is one of Origen’s uses of the theory of Oikeiosis, later taken over by Gregory of Nyssa as well.8 Clement of Alexandria, well known to Origen, praised Plato’s ideal of ὁμοίωσις θεῷ as eudaemonistic: “Plato, the philosopher who posited happiness as the highest goal, claims this is assimilation to God as much as possible” (Strom. 2.100.1-101.1).

For Origen, assimilation to God is also assimilation to Christ, who is God (Comm.Io. 1.23), one of the three Hypostaseis who are the Principles (ἀρχαί) of all.9 In Princ. 3.6.1, Origen delineates the passage from “image of God,” an initial datum for humans, to “likeness/assimilation to God” (which in Plato implied becoming “just, holy, and wise”), and from likeness to unity in the end: εἰκών from the beginning > ὁμοίωσις through moral improvement in this or the future life > ἕν / ἕνωσις, unity/unification (another Platonic ideal) in the eventual apokatastasis and “deification” (θέωσις), when God will eschatologically be “all in all” (based on 1Cor 15:28). “God’s image” is an initial datum, but the “likeness/assimilation to God” has still to come (Hom.Ez. 13.2). It is the ideal of PoR and of every human and rational life for these ancient philosophers of religion. I think it maintains its validity for us today.

John Schellenberg on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

John Schellenberg is Professor of Philosophy at Mount Saint Vincent University in Canada. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Given religion’s questionable maturity, one norm or value I would propose for philosophy of religion is that work in the field, to attain excellence, must be fitted to this fact.

What do I mean by ‘questionable maturity’? Not that beneficial and profound strands of religiousness have yet to appear, or that we should look solely to the future for illuminating religious insights, ignoring the past. What I have in mind is that numerous facets of human culture are opposed to the behaviours that, sufficiently long pursued, might reasonably make us confident that we have gone as far as we can toward the following goal: bringing to light and thoroughly entering into the deepest and most profound transcendently-focused ideas and practices our species is capable of generating. Call this the goal of fully tapping human transcendent aspirations. We could hardly live up to our evolutionary designation without making this a goal for religion as a dimension of human culture. But for the reason given, it is not a goal that we would properly think of ourselves as having come close to achieving.

Let me fill out the reason. Human culture currently includes ideologies of the most resilient and unbending kind, fervent beliefs that make related inquiries seem unnecessary, cultural prejudices and in-group biases galore. Such factors have long been operating so as to favour particular contentious religious views. We are commonly influenced by them prior to the deep and wide, openminded and openhearted religious investigation that could properly acquaint us with many orientations other than those with which we are familiar, as well as in utter innocence of the thought that there may be more religious ideas in intellectual space than we have conceived during the past few thousand years – an eyeblink in evolutionary time. With women long consigned to being seen but not heard, we are still partially in innocence even of what half of our own race might contribute to religious discussion. And then there is religious violence, which bleeds freely into the present from the past. It is surely reasonable to wonder: Would the elimination of such factors allow transcendent aspirations to speak to us in new and more profound tones?

It is striking that very few religious inquirers have even tried to bridge religious intellectual divides, or to get a clear view of all the religious ideas we have conceived. One token of this is how recently religious studies departments have begun appearing in our universities. Another is that even the currently best-known critics of religious belief – the New Atheists – exhibit such faults as are listed in the previous paragraph. Witness how often they proceed as though the only religions in the world are the religions of the West, and how immune they appear to be from instruction as to the possibility of human religious immaturity by their own evolutionary worldview.

Philosophy of any kind, and certainly philosophy of religion, finding itself in such circumstances, should feel compelled to push very hard in the opposite direction instead of remaining in the shadow of ignorance. Since the aims of philosophy of religion prominently include fundamental understanding (which includes fundamental evaluation) of things religious, this field of inquiry naturally must endorse the goal of fully tapping human transcendent aspirations. Indeed, on the intellectual side, it must share it. How else can we avoid the danger of premature assessment? Thus a proper sensitivity to the facets of human culture described above is paramount; in relation to them, philosophy of religion must seek to be, as they say, part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Given its nature, we could hardly call work in the field excellent if it did not fit its circumstances in this way.

Sadly, much contemporary philosophy of religion is still part of the problem, providing additional examples of influence by deleterious cultural factors to set alongside the sins of the New Atheists. Like them, most philosophers of religion have been preoccupied with personal conceptions of the divine popular in the West. And lately, with ‘Christian philosophy of religion’ in the ascendancy, we have become rather complacent about allowing parochial points of reference to define the terrain in which a philosopher of religion operates. Such behaviour evinces a presupposition of religious maturity rather than sensitivity to the distinct possibility that maturity is still a long way off. If I am right, we should not call philosophical work entangled with this presupposition excellent.

How can we do better? What, more specifically, will this mean? It will certainly mean choosing the pro-maturity option whenever both a maturity-conducive way of proceeding and an alternative making concessions to the status quo present themselves.

So suppose you can either ignore new religious options and new attempts to cross boundaries of race and gender and style when they are introduced, or seek to give them careful attention, willing to adjust previous allegiances according to what you discover. Given the maturity-oriented criterion, to attain excellence you must pretty clearly do the latter. Or suppose you can either import your pre-existing religious or anti-religious belief into philosophical inquiry and defend it at all costs, or turn your belief into a position to be brought into friendly conversation with the positions of disagreeing others in as many ways as you can, willing to exchange it for a new position as, through such conversation, the body of available information is enlarged. To attain excellence, you must again choose the latter course.

You must choose it because we are all influenced by the factors contributing to religion’s questionable maturity. In these circumstances, we should agree to make disagreements work for us and for maturity: their purpose, we might learn to think, is to expand our imaginations and to enlarge and improve, for everyone, the body of available information about religious matters. Likewise, it is imperative to assume that much in the religious realm may not yet have been encountered by human beings and that many ways of coming to grips with religious matters may well have gone undetected. Only in these ways can we minimize the likelihood of remaining ignorant of vital facts with a bearing on our work should they currently be hidden from us – as, given our track record, may well be the case – and so do justice to our status as philosophers.

James McLachlan on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

James McLachlan is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Western Carolina University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Ethical Transcendence and Critical Historical Immanence

The norms and values that I think define excellent philosophy of religion are openness to otherness as the effort to see how different religious logics might work in relation to different basic assumptions about the world. And a critical/historical consciousness that sees all human activities as situated in historical and cultural development.

I start with both hyperbole and a way too overly negative statement of the state of the discipline. I will greatly oversimplify things by dividing philosophy of religion between what I take to be the two major approaches from the two disciplines that use the term: philosophy and religious studies. Philosophy of Religion as it practiced in philosophy departments must realize that it has to focus on much more than theism or the types of theisms that has been the standard of philosophy of religion as a primarily Western and even more narrowly Christian discipline. Though this has certainly been changing over the last couple of decades any random survey of introductory philosophy of religion texts indicates the narrowness of the questions considered in the field. The usual arguments for the existence of God, the tension between faith and reason, miracles, the problem of evil (related to an omnipotent and omniscient deity), and the relation of religion and ethics, or rather, theism and ethics. But the narrowness of the traditional approaches to the discipline go beyond its narrowly Western focus.1 It also seems to ignore the history of Western Theism. It behaves as if the last two hundred years of historical/critical studies of Christian doctrines like theism itself had not occurred. The philosophers of religion sometimes appear to better fit Donald Wiebe’s characterization of religionists as crypto-theologians than do the phenomenologists of religion. They seem only really concerned with Christian theology or at the most theism, despite the fact that Christianity only accounts for about a third of what we could call religious people on the planet and theism only about half. They seem to have taken the part of Mr. Thwackum, the Divine, at least in part against Mr. Square, the Philosopher, in that wonderful dispute in Henry Fielding’s The Adventures of Tom Jones: “When I mention religion, I mean the Christian religion and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion, and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England” (Fielding 1917).

It is only correct that philosophers of religion from religious studies should be critical of such an approach. However, many religionists may also be crypto-theological in seeking to find something irreducibly religious in all religions and excluding any other approaches as reductionist. These are countered by a gang of theorists in the study of religion that includes, among others, Wiebe and Russell McCutcheon. They argue for methodological atheism in the study of religious phenomena and will not allow any philosophical approach that would evaluate what might be the truth or value of religious groups’ claims or practices. Such approaches reveal much about the phenomena that is to be explored but in their insistence on method as revealer of truth about the phenomenon they are not open to the phenomena themselves. As Merleau-Ponty famously quipped at the beginning of “Eye and Mind” “Science manipulates things and gives up living in them.”

This does not mean that there is something irreducibly religious about religious phenomena, as suggested by the phenomenologists of religions. What is needed instead is a phenomenological approach championed by Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas that would see religion as part of the life world.

The title to H. G. Gadamer’s Truth and Method is deliberately ironic. Truth evades the methodological approach. Understanding is not the act of a subject over against an object but the way of being. Truth is not reached methodically but dialectically, through question and answer, the constant passing from whole to part and part to whole. The dialectical approach to truth is the antithesis of method, indeed it is a pre-structure of the individual’s way of seeing. It recognizes the historicality of both religion, the investigator searching to understand it, and his method. Method only renders explicit what was implicit in the method. In the dialectical situation, the matter encountered is that to which we respond. The interpretive encounter is no longer that of a questioner and an object, with the questioner having to construct methods to bring the object into his grasp. On the contrary, the questioner suddenly finds himself the being who is interrogated by the subject matter. Here one is situated in history and sees her own position as produced historically. Religion would be approached much as art, as a human creation that is at least an effort at transcendence.

Religion claims a transcendent but the idea that I ought to be open to the other, either as an individual or to her tradition is ethical. This is basically Levinas’s distinction between the “Holy” and the “Sacred.” He claims the ways that these terms are usually defined is the essence of idolatry. Levinas uses the word sacred as a notion of a single ground that unites everything. This would be the irreducibly religious of the old phenomenology of religion movement. Otto calls it the “Mysterium Tremendom et Fascinans” that fills us with awe and terror. This can be quite wonderful but could also provoke the kind of enthusiasm that was provoked in Nazi rallies. It can be a source of violence. Levinas defines the Holy as the respectful relation to another person who “transcends” me and all my ideas.

Scott Smith on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Scott Smith is Professor of Ethics and Christian Apologetics at Biola University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion? as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

One of the most fundamental, operating assumptions in academic religious studies is that religion basically is a construct, whether by individuals or social groups. While philosophers from different conceptual paradigms differ about this assumption, nonetheless it still seems that the majority of philosophers, being naturalists, embrace what is known as the fact-value split. On that view, religion does not give us knowledge; rather, it gives us personal opinions, values, preferences, and our constructs.

Yet, a virtue of good philosophy is a willingness to subject our assumptions to rigorous debate. I suggest this same mindset should be applied to this widely held assumption about religious knowledge.

Now, in this short essay, it is not feasible to make a full evaluation of the fact-value split. (I have addressed it more thoroughly, however, in two books, Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality: Testing Religious Truth-claims (Routledge, 2012), and In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy (IVP, 2014).) Nevertheless, here I want to suggest that science, if based on naturalism, cannot give us knowledge at all. That undermines the “fact” side of the split.

But, clearly, we do have knowledge of many things, including in science. I will suggest that happens, however, due to the existence of nonnatural entities, which naturalism cannot countenance. What, then, is needed to exist in order for us to have knowledge? Here, I suggest that the best explanation for these nonnatural, universal qualities is that they are grounded in God. If so, I suggest that this would provide knowledge in the area of religion. (I also think we can have moral knowledge, too, though that is an argument to be made in another place).

Consider the ontological resources naturalism has to give us knowledge. In his book, The Intentional Stance, Daniel Dennett has developed this tactic which he advocates to interpret the behavior of “intentional systems” (humans, frogs, computers, etc.). Dennett treats mental content functionally; thoughts, beliefs, desires, purposes, and other mental states, along with their intentionality, are just attributions from the intentional stance to predict behavior. There are only brain states, physical patterns, and behavior that we take, or interpret, to be about something.

Furthermore, for Dennett, there are no “deeper facts” beyond behavior as to what someone “really had in mind” when behaving in some way, precisely because there are no essences. Yet, he admits that if there were essences, there could be deeper facts as to what someone meant. There also could be a fact of the matter, beyond interpretation, what that person’s (alleged) mental state really was of or about.

This makes sense on naturalism, and not merely Dennett’s particular views. For on naturalism, there are no intrinsically mental entities. Nor is there anything intrinsically intentional. Still, we may conceive of, or treat, something as intentional, much like Dennett does.

But, we should notice that Dennett’s own views seem to presuppose the reality of intentionality. For when he and others engage in observations of behaviors of some system, it seems those observations need intentionality themselves, and not merely an attribution thereof. Moreover, his attributions, which are interpretations of behavior, also seem to require real intentionality; otherwise, how could these be about the behavior?

Even more importantly, without any essences (or “deeper facts”) to thoughts, beliefs, or even Dennett’s interpretations, it always will be an open question what some behavior “means.” Without any intrinsic qualities, there will not be any intrinsic qualities to a behavior, or an intrinsic meaning of a text. Moreover, thoughts are brain-writings, and thus they are just as subject to interpretation as any other text.

So, as Dennett hints, but apparently does not fully realize, his views are subject to the same indefiniteness of interpretation as the views of Jacques Derrida. It seems that for Dennett, like Derrida, that everything is interpretation. Yet, if that is the case, we face the prospects of an infinite regress of interpretations, making us unable even to get started.

To stress, Dennett admits why this happens – if there were essences, such as the intrinsic intentionality of some thought, interpretation, or observation, there would be a deeper fact of what it really is about. But, on naturalism, there are no essences.

However, if we pay attention to what is before us in conscious awareness, I think we can become aware that (for example) our thoughts really do have intentionality, and they have it intrinsically. For it seems we cannot have a thought that is not about something, whether or not that thing obtains in reality. I can think of Pegasus, even though Pegasus does not obtain. Also, consider a thought of a Starbuck’s Mocha Frappuccino®. It does not seem that thought could be about something else (say, a soccer match) and still be the same thought. Instead, the thought of the soccer match would be a different thought. Thoughts seem to have their intentional contents intrinsically.

The same seems to apply to interpretations and beliefs. But, without real intentionality, and real essences, it seems there will not be any real interpretations or beliefs. Moreover, propositional knowledge also seems to require intentionality, but without it, there will not be such knowledge.

I suggest that naturalism lacks the ontology needed for us to have knowledge of reality. But, since the “fact” side of the split seems to trade upon a naturalistic ontology, this finding should undermine the split. However, I have suggested that knowledge requires the reality of essences. What might be their best explanation? While they might be brute facts, I suggest that would be rather odd, given how they seem to enable us to know reality. Essences, however, would fit within the ontological and design implications of theism.

Now, clearly, I have been able to make only suggestions. Much more work needs to be done in this area. But, I think that a criterion for good philosophy of religion should be a willingness to question some of our deepest assumptions, and I have sought to motivate that study regarding the deeply entrenched fact-value split.